Human Rights Watch labels Israeli/Hezbollah attacks as war crimes

International human rights groups have slammed the Israeli Defence Force’s (IDF) investigation into the air-missile attack on the Lebanese village of Qana, dismissing it as “a whitewash”.

The IDF investigation concluded that it has “operated according to information that the building was not inhabited by civilians”.

However, Amnesty International says that survivors interviewed by its researchers shortly after the bombing said that they had been in the building for two weeks and that their presence must have been known to Israeli forces, whose surveillance drones frequently flew over the village.

Amnesty said that issuing warnings to the civilian population to leave the area does not absolve Israel of its responsibilities under customary international humanitarian law.

Human Rights Watch agrees. Executive director Kenneth Roth said: “[The] strike on Qana… suggests that the Israeli military is treating southern Lebanon as a free-fire zone. The Israeli military seems to consider anyone left in the area a combatant who is fair game for attack.”

Both agencies said that intentionally launching an indiscriminate attack constitutes a war crime and that the concept of ‘free-fire’ zones is incompatible with international humanitarian law.

The agencies are calling for the dispatch of the UN Secretary General’s International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission (IHFFC), established under Article 90 of Protocol I, relating to the protection of victims of international armed conflicts, which investigates alleged violations of the Geneva Convention and the protocol.

“What is needed here is an independent investigation, which can look at all credible reports of serious violations of international humanitarian law taking place in this conflict,” said Kate Gilmore, Amnesty executive deputy secretary general.

A statement issued by the IDF said responsibility for the Qana attack “rests with the Hezbollah” because it has used the area to launch missiles into Israel. The IDF added: “Residents in this region, and specifically the residents of Qana, were warned several days in advance to leave the village.”

On 27 July Israeli Justice Minister Haim Ramon repeated the sentiment, saying that Israel had given civilians ample time to leave southern Lebanon and that anyone remaining could be considered a supporter of Hezbollah.

However, Roth argues that “[Israel] must still make every possible effort to target only genuine combatants”.

He continues: “Through its arguments, the Israeli military is suggesting that Palestinian militant groups might ‘warn’ all settlers to leave Israeli settlements and then be justified in targeting those who remained.”

Thousands of civilians remain in villages south of the Litani River, despite IDF warnings to leave. Some have chosen to stay, but many are unable to flee due to destroyed roads, a lack of petrol, sick relatives or Israeli attacks.

Human Rights Watch observers have been in Lebanon since the onset of the current hostilities and claim to have documented numerous cases in which Israeli forces have carried out indiscriminate attacks against civilians.

The agency says it has also documented Hezbollah’s indiscriminate rocket-attacks in Israeli civilian areas, resulting in 18 civilian deaths to date. “These serious violations of international humanitarian law are also war crimes,” a Human Rights Watch statement says.